Debate, Diplomacy, Doubt 13

Henry Kissinger and his two French intermediaries, Marcovich and Aubrac, were then scouting peace possibilities with a North Vietnam¬ese representative in Paris, and the question of the air campaign was an important item on their agenda. But for Johnson, Stennis was a higher priority. On August 9, the day that the hearings opened, he eased the restrictions on bombing and permitted U.S. aircraft to hit previously prohibited targets within the city limits of Hanoi and Hai¬phong as well as near the Chinese border. As the subcommittee ses¬sions went on, the raids proliferated. On August 20, American airplanes flew more than two hundred sorties, the largest daily number to date in the war. The next day, Johnson’s nightmare came near to becoming reality when the Chinese shot down two U.S. aircraft that had accidentally crossed their frontier. Stennis was not deterred.
Beginning with Admiral Sharp, the commander for the Pacific, who had flown in from Honolulu, a procession of top navy, army and air force officers testified, each elaborating variations on the same theme— the absolute necessity to continue and even expand the air war against North Vietnam. They pointed to graphs and charts and statistical tables, claiming among other things that the bombing had until now prevented the Communists from doubling their forces in the south, which would have compelled the United States to deploy an additional eight hundred thousand troops at a cost of seventy-five billion dollars “just to hold our own.” If the raids were not more effective, it was because the administration had imposed “overly restrictive controls” that had spared important targets, escalating the attacks too gradually and giving the enemy time to build up “formidable air defenses.” To halt or curb the air campaign, therefore, would be a “disaster.”
McNamara, whose turn came at the end of August, also showed up at the hearings with a panoply of graphs and statistics. Facing him in the chamber besides Stennis were Senators Henry Jackson, Stuart Symington and Strom Thurmond, all partial to the military estab¬lishment. McNamara welcomed the inquiry, figuring that by influ¬encing these men he could deflate the generals and admirals. But sensing that the president preferred to remain aloof from the pro¬ceeding in order to preserve his flexibility, he had not cleared his presentation in advance with Johnson. So, very much alone, he tried to defend the strategy that the president had approved.
In his precise, professorial, faintly patronizing style, he stressed that the bombing of North Vietnam had been conceived only as a “sup¬plement” to the conflict in the south, not as a “substitute for the arduous ground war.” But, discarding his own earlier optimistic ex¬pectations, he had little positive to say for the air raids. They had not reduced the movement of enemy supplies into South Vietnam, since the Communists needed only fifteen tons a day to fight—and “even if the quantity were five times that amount, it would be transported by only a few trucks.” They had not seriously damaged the economy of North Vietnam, which “is agrarian and simple”—and whose pop¬ulation was unfamiliar with “the modern comforts and conveniences that most of us in the Western world take for granted.” They had not broken morale, since the North Vietnamese were “accustomed to discipline and are no strangers to deprivation and death”—and “con¬tinue to respond to the political direction” of their leaders. As for the Communist leaders themselves, nothing offered “any confidence that they can be bombed to the negotiating table.” The sole strategy for knocking the North Vietnamese out of the war from the air, Mc¬Namara concluded, would be some form of genocide: “Enemy op¬erations in the south cannot, on the basis of any reports I have seen, be stopped by air bombardment—short, that is, of the virtual anni¬hilation of North Vietnam and its people.”
Stennis and his associates were not swayed. Indeed, their verdict had been reached before the hearings had opened. Civilian authority, they asserted in a final report, had “consistently overruled the unan¬imous recommendations of military commanders and the joint chiefs of staff,” who had repeatedly proposed “systematic, timely and hard¬hitting” actions. Their simple prescription was to put the soldiers in charge.
Lyndon Johnson was not about to yield his constitutional prerog¬atives as commander in chief to a cabal of right-wing politicians and soldiers. But the hearings unsettled him. He privately denounced the senators for attempting to drive him deeper into the war, yet he wanted to avoid a collision with them, especially when opinion surveys told him that most Americans favored tougher measures—their mood pun- gently expressed in the bumper sticker that demanded, WIN OR GET OUT. Once again, his expedient was appeasement.
Violating his own cautious instincts, he approved air strikes against fifty-seven new North Vietnamese targets—nearly half of them in heavily populated areas and some in the sensitive zone near the Chinese border. He also invited General Earle Wheeler, chairman of the joint chiefs, to participate regularly in his Tuesday luncheons at the White House—where, in a second-floor dining room decorated with a mural of Cornwallis surrendering at Yorktown, he and his inner circle de-liberated policy. And he decided to dump McNamara.
McNamara had been a model cabinet officer for Johnson—able, conscientious, discreet and, above all, loyal. But Johnson was ruthless, and McNamara had become a liability. Not only had he put Johnson on the spot by antagonizing the Stennis faction, but he relentlessly clung to the same line at the White House. In front of Rusk, Rostow, Wheeler and the others at a Tuesday luncheon in late October, he bluntly told Johnson that the current strategy in Vietnam was “dan¬gerous, costly and unsatisfactory,” and he also produced a memoran¬dum recommending steps to “stabilize our efforts”: maintain the air strikes against North Vietnam at the present level for the next two months, then halt the bombing—partly to invite a Communist re¬sponse, or at least demonstrate that the United States was “not block¬ing negotiations.” Stop building up the American combat force in the south and study ways to reduce casualties—while drafting plans to give the South Vietnamese “greater responsibility for their own se¬curity.”

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